The Old North from Peneverdant

SnowdropsIn the land where I live, spring awakes. Snowdrops in their prime unfold the voluminous skirts of their lanterns. Lords and ladies push their courtship through the soil alongside first signs and scents of ransoms. Swollen mosses take on a bright green living vibrancy.

As I walk the path centuries of ancestors walked to St Mary’s Well, I hear the loudness of a thrush. Could it be the one who calls me from sleep each morning, speckled chest blanched and white as birch amongst ash and sycamore? The trees hold back for now, but I know the sap will start rising soon.

I pass the site of the healing well and cross the road to the War Memorial. Splashes of pink, purple and yellow primroses are planted in beds before the Celtic cross. Etched on blue-grey slabs are the names of seventy-three men who lost their lives in the First World War and forty-six who died in the second. They are honoured and remembered here. I also think of the dead who have no memorial or whose memories have been erased or forgotten.

I follow the footpath uphill onto Church Avenue. Leading to St Mary’s Church, it once went to a Benedictine Priory, dissolved and more recently demolished. A strange road this; trodden by pilgrims in search of miraculous cures and by funeral processions. By soldiers too, maybe armies, defending this crucial position from what we now see as the castle motte.

Passing the church on the hill’s summit I stand in the graveyard amongst tilted and fallen headstones, beneath sentinel beech trees whose shells and bronzed and curling leaves still litter the greening earth.

There’s no access to the motte’s vantage point, but through leafless trees I can make out the city of Preston with its clock tower, steeples, tower blocks and huge manufacturies along Strand Road. I recall images of its panoply of smoking chimneys, flaming windows, imagine the pounding Dickensian melancholy-mad elephants.

Preston’s sleeker now. Cleaner. Less red and black. Concrete grey. Not so smoky. But sometimes the industrial pall still holds. Somewhere behind its walls lies a medieval town and behind that…

The Pennines form a sweeping backdrop, rising higher than Priest Town’s spires ever could; Parlick, Wolf Fell, Longridge Fell, Billinge Hill, Great Hill, Winter Hill. An easterly green and purple barricade. To the west, the river Ribble, Belisama, strapped into her new course, stretches long arms to her shining estuary. A sea gull cries over the horizon and disappears.

I’ve spent several years researching the history of Penwortham. The Riversway Dockfinds mark the existence of a Bronze Age Lake Village. Ballista balls on Castle Hill and a huge industrial site at Walton-le-dale ascertain a Roman presence. Following the breakdown of Roman rule, history grinds to a halt.

There is a black hole in Penwortham’s past the size of the Dark Ages; during the time of the Old North.

Historians have conjectured about this. David Hunt and Alan Crosby agree that place names (where we find a mixture of Brythonic and Old English, like Penwortham* often conjoined) suggest a gradual settlement of the local area by Anglo-Saxons during the seventh century. They say Penwortham’s remoteness on the edges of Northumbria and Mercia meant it was not a major concern. However, this conflicts with the significance of its location as a defensive position for the early Britons and Romans and later probably for the Saxons of Mercia and the key role it played for the Normans during the harrying of the North.

History starts up again with the Saxon hundreds, invasions from Scandinavia and the Norman Conquest. But what happened in between?

Unfortunately, likewise, there is a black hole in the history of the Old North the size of Penwortham. And it isn’t the only one.

The very concept of ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘the Old North’ is problematic. It is a term used post datum by scholars to identify an area of land covering the majority of northern England and southern Scotland from the time of the breakdown of Roman rule in the fifth century until the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria came to dominate in the eighth century.

During this period, it was simply known as ‘Y Gogledd’ ‘the North’. Its people spoke a Brythonic language known as Cumbric, which was similar to the Cymric language of the Welsh. Its rulers ‘Gwŷr y Gogledd’ ‘the Men of the North’ claimed common descent from either Coel Hen (Old King Coel) or Dyfnawl Hen. Again, the genealogies are problematic because they were created by kings to certify their reign by tracing their lineage back to legendary ancestral figures.

The main kingdoms of the Old North are usually identified as Alt Clud, in the south-west of Scotland, which centred on Dumbarton and later became Strathclyde; Gododdin, in the south-east of Scotland, which had a base at Edinburgh; Elmet, in western Yorkshire and Rheged in north-west England.

The location of Rheged is a matter of ongoing debate. For Ifor Williams it centres on Carlisle and the Eden Valley and covers Cumbria, the Solway Firth and Dumfries and Galloway. John Morris posits the existence of a northern Rheged in Cumbria and a southern Rheged that extended into Lancashire and Cheshire. On the basis of landscape and resources, Mike McCarthy suggests a smaller kingdom or set of sub-kingdoms existed either north or south of the Solway. If McCarthy is correct, we do not have a name for present day Lancashire at all but a black hole the size of a county or larger!

Another problem is that textual sources about the Old North are extremely limited. We have some historical records such as the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Much of the history of this period is derived from the heroic poetry of the Dark Age bards Taliesin and Aneirin. Later saga poetry construes dramatic dialogues between characters associated with earlier events.

Research leads to where history and myth converge but can take us no further. It becomes necessary to step beyond study across the threshold to otherworlds where the past, our ancestors and deities still live.

So I speak my intentions to the spirits of place; the Lady in the Ivy with her glance of green, wood pigeons gathered in the trees, the people buried here in marked and unmarked graves.

I speak with my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, who abides beyond this land but sometimes seems closer than the land itself. The god who initiated and guides this quest.

His suggestion: what is a black hole but a portal?

Our agreement stirs a ghost wind from behind the graves, rustling bronze beech leaves and tree whispers from above.

The hill seems greener. A single white sea gull barks. Then long-tailed tits come chittering and twirling to the brambles.

Beech trees and castle motte*Penwortham first appears in the Domesday Book in 1086 as ‘Peneverdant.’ Writing in 1857 Rev. W. Thornber claims this name is of British origin and ‘formed of three words- pen, werd or werid and want, as Caer werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water, that is the green hill on the water’. This describes exactly how I imagine Castle Hill would have looked during the eleventh century near the Ribble on the marsh. However, ‘verdant’ has always sounded more like French for ‘green’ to me.

Alan Crosby says ‘Peneverdant’ results from a Norman scribe trying to write an unfamiliar word (which was likely to have been in use for up to 500 years) phonetically. He tells us the ‘Pen’ element in Penwortham is British and means ‘prominent headland’ whilst ‘wortham’ is Old English and means ‘settlement on the bend in the river’.

If Penwortham had an older British name prior to Saxon settlement, it is unknown. I can’t help wondering if it would have been something like ‘y pen gwyrdd ar y dŵr,’ which is modern Welsh for ‘the green hill on the water’. It’s not that far from Peneverdant.

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5 thoughts on “The Old North from Peneverdant

  1. I like ‘What is a black hole but a portal’ 🙂

    The medieval Welsh bards thought of the Old North very much as a lost land and one to be kept alive in the imagination.

    It fascinating how much is buried in the name of a place, and how difficult it is sometimes to uncover all that is buried there; layers of ancestors dreaming the past and us trying to catch their dreams.

  2. Another layer you have begun to peel away for us to reveal the wonder, history and challenge of the land and landscape in this reality in which you live and move and have your being. Fascinating.

  3. ozrico

    I live in Penwortham and for years have been fascinated by the history of what is clearly a very ancient place. The place name I think comes from a Norman scribe trying to phonetically render something spoken to him in Welsh involving the words ‘Pen’, ‘Ffordd’ and ‘Afon’ = Headland by the ford of the River.
    Here’s some more information rescued from the event horizon around your black hole.
    As late as 613 the lands around Penwortham were still in the hands of the Britons, because it was into this region Aethelfrith of Bernicia rode to challenge their power at the battle of Chester. It seems the lands between the Ribble & the Dee formed part of a kingdom known as Theyrnllwg. As part of the alliance that opposed Aethelfrith was Brocmail, then king of Theyrnllwg. The Britons lost the battle, but it is doubtful that the Bernicians held onto our lands very long, because Aetherfrith fell in battle four years later. If Theyrnllwg did not revert to Britons then it certainly did when Cadwallon of Gwynedd briefly smashed the power of the Northumbrians in 633.

    1. Wow. Thank you so much for this!!! 🙂 THEYRNLLWYG- from a quick google search there’s a few sources for this as the link between the North and Wales- and one says Gwynedd and Theyrnllwg were once ruled by Cunedda before splitting… And also the name of a king of Theyrnllwg – Brocmail, this is so exciting. Will probably be posting on this once I’ve followed up the leads and of course will thank you in the post.

      1. One of the pedigrees from Jesus College Oxford lists the kings [XVIII] and Brocmails son was Cynan Garwyn who Taliesin composed ‘To Cynan Garwyn’ for.
        Cynan, the exciter of battle,
        Bestowed on me treasure,
        For not, false the glory
        Of the stout hunting dogs of the domain.
        Ahundred steeds of equal pace,
        Silver their covering.
        Ahundred legions in green
        Of one front running together.
        A hundred urchins in my bosom 
        And a battalion of cats.
        Asword with sheath of stone.
        A fist-cell better than any.
        A hundred Cynan had,
        Hateful not to see,
        From the vales of Cadell.
        In battle they were not shaken.
        To the battle on Wy there resorted
        Spears innumerable.
        The Gwentians were slain, 
        With the gore-drenched blade.
        A battle in Mona, great, fair,
        Hovering over, and praised
        Over the Menei, there went
        Horses and confident ones.
        A battle on the hill of Dyved.
        Slaughter stings in motion.
        Nor were seen
        The kine before the countenance of any one.
        Let the son of Brochwael boast,
        He will declare his wish.
        Let Cornwall greet,
        The younger will not praise fate.
        The incomprehensible will depress
        In the day that is praised by me,
        My patron of Cynan.
        Battles arose.
        A woeful spreading flame,
        There raises up a great fire.
        A battle in the country of Brachan,
        A warring scene of tumult,
        Miserable princes.
        Were made to tremble before Cynan.
        The breastplate being transfixed,
        Like a ruler, they cried out,
        Cyngen of perfect song
        Thou wilt help with thy wide country.
        A saying was heard.
        Every one in his red place,
        Be the circle red, they say ironically,
        They will enslave thy Cynan.

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